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Does L.A. Opera lack the guts to stage 'The Perfect American'?

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Philip Glass' groundbreaking American opera "Einstein on the Beach" opened at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday for what promoters billed as one of the biggest cultural events of the season.

And what about the composer's new opera, the one about Walt Disney? Don't expect to see it in town any time soon.

"The Perfect American" was staged in Madrid and London earlier this year and will be performed in Australia in fall 2014.

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L.A. Opera President Christopher Koelsch attended the world premiere of "The Perfect American" in January in Madrid so that he could consider producing the piece's U.S. premiere.

But Koelsch said in a recent interview that the company now has no current plans to stage “The Perfect American” and declined to elaborate on the reasons, other than to say the piece could be produced at some point in the future.

The opera drew mixed and sometimes harsh reviews in Europe. Despite that, fans of "The Perfect American" say it's a natural for L.A. Opera, since it largely takes place in Los Angeles during the last months of Disney's life.

But staging it could also create ill will among donors, arts experts say, especially since the fictionalized portrait of Disney in "The Perfect American" has been criticized as unfair and inaccurate. The Disney family is a major patron of the arts in Los Angeles.

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Unlike their counterparts in Europe, U.S. opera companies depend heavily on private donations. To stage "The Perfect American" in Los Angeles, Koelsch would likely need to seek significant contributions from board members and other donors.

"It would take a lot of guts for L.A. Opera to produce it," said Brann Wry, a professor in performing arts administration at New York University. "The Disneys have such power in L.A. that they can instill a lot of fear in a board."

John Berry, the artistic director of the English National Opera in London, where the opera was performed in June, seconded that opinion.

"If I was running L.A. Opera, which has to rely on private money, I'd think twice about doing it," Berry said. "In terms of taking risk, they have to take that very seriously."

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L.A. Opera board members didn't get involved in the decision not to stage "The Perfect American," said Carol Henry, a board member who heads the company's executive committee. At the same time, she said she couldn't see L.A. Opera producing any piece that could insult "such an important family in L.A."

Diane Disney Miller, the only surviving child of Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, said she put no pressure on the company not to stage "The Perfect American."

"I don't believe in artistic censorship," she said. "I believe in honesty."

Even so, Disney Miller said she is "disgusted and angry" with the production's depiction of her father.

"It's not my father's last, final days," she said. "Nothing in his opera has any basis in truth whatsoever."

Disney Miller is not directly connected to the L.A. Opera, but her mother's $50-million gift provided the foundation for the Walt Disney Concert Hall at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, and Disney Miller played a crucial role in seeing the project through. The Music Center manages Disney Hall and the neighboring Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where L.A. Opera resides.

Susan Disney Lord — a granddaughter of Walt's brother, Roy O. Disney — has been a prominent donor to L.A. Opera, along with her husband, attorney Scott Lord, a former L.A. Opera board member. A representative for Disney Lord and her siblings said they had no comment about "The Perfect American."

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Phelim McDermott, who directed the opera in Europe, calls it a "missed opportunity."

"I think it would be a shame if an American audience didn't get a chance to see it. No matter what city, but especially L.A.," he said. "It's an opera about L.A. in a lot of ways."

Glass adapted his opera from a 2004 novel by Peter Stephan Jungk. It is an episodic depiction of Disney's final months as he contends with illness and is visited by a disgruntled former employee. (Disney died in 1966 at the age of 65, in a hospital in Burbank.)

Some scenes portray Disney as prejudiced against blacks and hostile to organized labor, or as the protagonist puts it, "union commies." The opera, which runs about two hours, paints him as an eccentric man obsessed with death and cryogenics, swinging between fits of megalomania and sentimentality.

Times music critic Mark Swed called it "a great American opera that needs to be seen in L.A. And it is also the only great L.A. opera."

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A reviewer for the New York Times was less impressed, writing that no one seems "to have known what to do with their protagonist, how to make a character who both repels and attracts."

The British media were was even more critical, with a reviewer for London's Independent writing that "this is less an opera than a failed attempt at 'Citizen Kane.'"

Glass, America's most popular living classical composer, defended the opera, saying "the only people who don't like the opera are those who haven't seen it."

"Icons like Disney are complicated people," he added. "Everybody has different sides — that's not a bad thing. That makes it interesting. I think [the opera] serves his memory in an honest and interesting way."

Glass said no major U.S. opera company has approached him about staging "The Perfect American" and said it would most likely be picked up by a small regional company.

"It could very well come in from a side door rather than the front door," he said. "It's not the end of the world if a smaller company did it. Any production is an important one."

david.ng@latimes.com

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